Tag Archives: Himalayan lily

Seven long years to bloom and then it dies – Cardiocrinum giganteum

The giant Himalayan lilies are coming into bloom. Cardiocrinum giganteum. It is the biggest of the lily family, hailing from areas like Tibet, Bhutan, Assam, Myanmar, Nepal and Sikkim.  It feels a bit of a triumph that we now have this bulb naturalised here. We haven’t planted any for many years and just allow them to grow where they pop up from seed.

The largest lily of them all – Cardiocrinum giganteum

These are not lilies for the home gardener on a small urban section. The flower spikes often reach three metres here and have been recorded at up to five metres. Fortunately, the stem is such that they can hold themselves up.

Usually six years of foliage and in the seventh year, it puts up an astounding flower spike

The main obstacle for most gardeners is that the bulb takes about seven years before it flowers and then it dies. Fortunately it makes offshoots around the main bulb as well as setting seed but those offshoots can take another five years minimum before they flower and the seeds take seven years. These are not lilies for the impatient gardener. And, while very fragrant, the flowers are a long way up so unless you have a grove of plants flowering at the same time, you are unlikely to get the benefit of scent. In the intervening years, they just form a clump of large, heavy textured, heart-shaped leaves that are reasonably anonymous.

Typically, these plants need cool, open, woodland conditions with soils which never dry out and are rich in humus. Those are pretty specific conditions.

The top photo is one of those really, seriously peculiar plant combinations that are a characteristic of many New Zealand gardens – a self sown Cardiocrium giganteum from the Himalayas, flanked on the right by Pseudowintera colorata (commonly known here as the mountain horopita or pepper tree) with Dracophyllum latifolium behind (both NZ natives) and then what we know as Aloe bainseii but is now, apparently, Aloidendron barberae – the tree aloe from southern Africa. It is a veritable United Nations of plants here.

Plant Collector: Cardiocrinum giganteum

The three metre flower spike of Cardiocrinum giganteum - worth the wait of up to 7 years to bloom

The three metre flower spike of Cardiocrinum giganteum – worth the wait of up to 7 years to bloom

If any bulb were to be the king or queen of wow, it is this giant Himalayan lily in full bloom. That is because these flowers are on a hefty stem that is around three metres high. Add to that the fact that it takes somewhere around seven years to flower and each bulb only flowers once. It then sets large amounts of seed and forms offsets around the base of the original bulb, each of which will take another five to seven years to flower. That life cycle must offer a metaphor for something. In the interim years, it just forms a seasonal clump of large, luscious, heart-shaped leaves reminiscent of an arum lily. This is a plant for cool, open, woodland conditions with soils which never dry out and are rich in humus. It does not perform in warm regions and won’t take much wind because of that great height in flower. We grow the plants in a cold, south facing border.

Cardiocrinums are very fragrant but the flowers are a fair way up in the air so to get the full impact of the scent, one possibly needs a veritable grove of them to walk through. The scent is stronger in the evening.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.